Publishing and Prizing Muslims Workshop

University of York

23 May 2014


On the 23rd of May, writers, academics and culture industry professionals gathered at University of York for the Publishing and Prizing Muslims workshop, organised by Dr Claire Chambers as part of the Muslims, Trust and Cultural Dialogue project. The aim was to discuss the emergence of Muslim writing as a critical and commercial category, to explore its place in the landscape of broader British Muslim cultural activities, and to examine those questions of trust which have accompanied it.

In the opening talk, Professor James English, Director of the Penn Humanities Forum at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke about his work on writers, representation and literary institutions – in particular the literary prize industry. Professor English’s work involves comparing datasets to identify trends in literary prize giving over the past fifty years across some of the major international awards. Comparing much-lauded texts with the wider bestseller market, he explored the relationship between commercial and prestige considerations, concluding that, post-2000, a larger proportion of prestige novels could be classed as in some sense historical: being set more than twenty five years in the past. By contrast, most bestsellers are set in the present.  Although his work is on literature in an international frame, Professor English speculated about the implications of these trends for novels by or about Muslims, remarking that most of the high profile Muslim writers today specialise in works with a contemporary setting. On the other hand, he suggested an interesting congruence in Muslim writing between prestige prizewinning and broader sales, with the ‘big names’ generally succeeding in both categories.

Professor Claire Squires, Director of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication, at Stirling University, described her experiences as prize submission co-ordinator at Hodder Headline in the 1990s, before going on to speak about her current role as judging panel member for the Saltire Literary Prize. She described the background to literary prize giving in Scotland and the quirks of the decision-making process. She also addressed the thorny topic of eligibility criteria; with its emphasis on a particular national identity yet need for enough flexibility to encompass a range of identities. The challenge for the Saltire judges in some regards replicates those issues of parameters and ‘authenticity’ that swirl around the Muslim Writers Awards.

Dr Claire Chambers from York began with the question of what might constitute a ‘Muslim writer’, quoting the novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab to ask whether the category might be a restricting ‘box’ or an enabling ‘springboard’. She noted how – despite initiatives such as Diversity in Publishing – minorities were still poorly represented in the industry, with implications for what gets published and also how it is marketed. She went on compare the ‘packaging’ of two contemporary writers of Muslim background, Kamila Shamsie and Leila Aboulela, as, respectively, ‘multi-culti’ and ‘halal’ novelists. Chambers showed how a quasi-anthropological approach animated some of the early dust jacket illustrations and author photos in Aboulela’s case, while Shamsie’s work was initially marketed as an exotic variant of chick lit, before graduating to a point where her recent novels have been presented with a more sober ‘quality literature’ look. The authors themselves have been largely content to allow their publishers leeway in how their books are marketed. However, Chambers pointed out that the actual content of their novels often belies or expressly complicates simple assumptions about identity, gender and representativeness.

Next, a panel of three experts from the culture industries discussed questions of Muslim writing and cultural engagement. Rukhsana Yasmin of Westbourne Press (the British publisher of Reza Aslan); Syima Aslam, marketing and audience engagement professional and co-organiser of the new Bradford Literature Festival; and the founder of the Muslim Writers Awards, Irfan Akram, came together to consider how to capture potential writers and audiences in the Muslim community, how to secure community consent, and how to gain interest from the broader, often uninformed culture sector. Here, questions of trust really came to the fore. Rukshana Yasmin described her own experiences and the occasional interference from editors in elements of writing, demanding some kinds of exoticism or ‘authentic’ content, although she emphasised that her own experience of the publishing process – with its inevitable commercial imperative – was overwhelmingly positive.  Syima Aslam emphasised inclusivity as the main goal of her attempt to establish a Bradford Literary Festival that would not be communally or ethnically exclusive, and desire to move beyond the stereotypes of Bradford as an Asian ghetto to galvanise and draw on all communities. Irfan Akram outlined the initial difficulties of gaining publisher interest and attention for the Muslim Writers Awards. He described making a case in commercial terms: the potential untapped source of Muslim writers and readers. Moderator Rehana Ahmed, from Teesside University, questioned him about matters of censorship, such as the Awards’ contentious decision to screen out certain types of content. Irfan replied that most of the controversy came from within the community itself, and described the over-riding desire as being to engage as many people as possible and get them reading and writing. In this case, the main aim was not aggressively to alienate or polarise.

After lunch, Dr Ana Miller, from Manchester Metropolitan University, focussed on the Manchester-based publisher Comma Press, suggesting that such small presses might have a greater freedom to be more politically committed and experimental when compared to publishers in the London literary scene, with its privileging of prestigious novels and writers. Comma Press specialises in short fiction from the Middle East. It describes itself as a not-for-profit initiative dedicated to ‘promoting new writing’ and ‘risk taking’, and specialises in ‘fiction which celebrates difference’. It also aims to resist stereotypical and touristic views. The paratexts that go along with its publications emphasise this effort to subvert clichés about the Middle East, although Miller conceded that some of the signs and ‘hooks’ of exotic difference are still in evidence.

Two distinguished writers then took to the floor to present some of their work. The novelist, translator and screenwriter Rukshana Ahmad prefaced her reading by emphasising the importance of dissent in literature. She traced this interest in her work back to her seminal 1991 anthology of Urdu feminist poetry, We Sinful Women, which focussed on female resistance in Zia-era Pakistan, and from which she extracted a piece by Fahmida Riaz. She then read, powerfully and movingly, from a work in progress about politics and feudalism, and from her short story about grief and loss, ‘First Love’. Robin Yassin-Kassab resisted calls to read from his well-known novel The Road from Damascus, preferring instead to give two urgent and rhythmic passages from his new novel about contemporary Syria. The writers then fielded questions about the writing process, the cinematic qualities and potential of their work, and their longer legacy.

Trust reappeared as an issue in the final, plenary session that brought all the participants together to consider issues raised by the day’s proceedings. This was not just trust between Muslim artists and a curious or suspicious non-Muslim audience, but intrinsic to the category itself. It was noted how some writers of Muslim cultural background wish to distance themselves from the immigrant or ‘Muslim writer’ category, feeling it to be unnecessarily restrictive. (It was also observed that, for some, this imperative came only after they had achieved international acclaim.) At the end of a packed and fascinating day, the panel ended with the question of whether now might be the time to redefine or move beyond the category of the ‘Muslim writer’.



  Introduction – Claire Chambers

  James F. English and Claire Squires

  Claire Chambers

  Rukhsana Yasmin, Syima Aslam and Irfan Akram

  Claire Chambers interviews Yahya Birt about the religious publishing scene in Britain

  Ana Miller

  Rukhsana Ahmad and Robin Yassin-Kassab read from, and discuss their work

  Roundtable Discussion

You are here: Home ARTS Publishing and Prizing Muslims Workshop